Candoco were the first professional dance company in the UK to focus on the integration of disabled and non-disabled dancers. It is a company that I have followed since the start of my own dance career back in the early 1990s, so I was absolutely thrilled when they recently asked me to come in and teach company yoga class.
With this post I would like to share my experience and some reflections.
The first thing I noticed a couple of days before starting, was that the thrill of being asked was beginning to transform into some kind of angst bordering on terror. In fact it even crossed my mind that I should cancel I was worried I might not be up to the job!
My fear was borne out of some concerns and questions, which I was struggling to reconcile. How could I possibly stick to the given brief of getting all of the dancers warm and prepared for a day of dance rehearsal when there would appear to be the need for so many individual adaptations? How does an able bodied teacher begin to presume how yoga postures or sun salutation sequences might be best experienced by people who use wheelchairs, wear prosthetic arms, or those who would appear to have only one leg? How ethical is it for an ‘able’ bodied person to make presumptions about what is or is not possible for those who are deemed to be ‘disabled’? Even if different sequences of yoga might be prepared for each individual, how do you deliver those sequences concurrently to everybody at once? What language does one use when the ‘normal’, “put you left foot here and the right foot there” might not be applicable? And how does one do all this, whilst simultaneously meeting the needs of the ‘able bodied’ dancers who should be prevented from waiting around and getting cold?
I felt a little stuck between going in with planned sequences based on ignorant assumptions of what might or might not be possible for bodies I had no first-person experience of, and going in without adequate preparation and the fear of being exposed without a clue on the day!
So here’s what happened. I acknowledged the fear and did it anyway. Much better to dive in with the hope that I would come out the other side a little wiser, rather than cancel. There’d be no prospect of growth with the latter!
Armed with some simple advice from Artistic Director of the company, Stine Nilsen, to ‘give people time’; words that formed the foundation of my approach to the day. I gave up any need that I might have had towards being ‘the teacher’ or the person in control. Rather I sought to honour all of the individual company members via a person centred approach. This was overtly stated at the beginning of the class with a reminder that each person there, and not me, was the expert of their own body and practice and that they had the freedom to depart from anything that I might be teaching to try out their own movement approaches. This meant that my role became less about being didactic or being the person ‘in power’ and shifted more towards the role of a facilitator, allowing others the time to find their own way into poses or sequences based upon the common principles of those poses or sequences. Instead of me giving an instruction on what any posture should look like, it became a question of “How might a downward dog / sun salutation / triangle pose, etc., be best approached if you have one arm? One leg? Are out of the wheelchair?”. Time was then given for principles of the postures to be explored. Crucially individual dancers were not left in isolation ‘just doing their own thing’. Once a position was found, I would then try to interact by asking questions about what it felt like and if it might feel better with a small tweak here or there. Language was adapted where possible. Where I might usually use the instructions like, “Ground through the soles of your feet” or “move your left leg forwards” it simply became “connect into the earth” and “move you left leg or side forwards”. I felt it was also important to give permission to those who already had experience of yoga asana in their bodies to go ‘off-piste’ and repeat a sequence or embellish what I had given according to their own needs and expertise. I felt this would solve the potential problem of having some dancers waiting around and going cold whilst I might be needing to spend time working with another individual. I was also mindful that it would be fundamentally important to regularly bring the group back together so they could feel the energy of being a group, rather than to let the overall experience dissipate too much into individuals just doing their own thing. For me these communal moments were not only important in terms of overall class structure, but mostly because they were moments where the yoga of the group could be felt, perhaps a little like musical codas.
I was really pleased to receive the news afterwards that the dancers had responded well to the session. It was also a little heartwarming to be told by one of the dancers that he really appreciated the time given to ‘find the posture’ as part of a process of dialogue with the yoga teacher. ‘Yoga teachers often say at the beginning of a class that they are open to giving adaptations, but often it can feel like lip service as you are often left on your own to figure it out whilst the rest of the class is gotten on with’.
Dialogue was becoming the thing. Perhaps the takeaway point of my time with Candoco. “Yesterday was your first day back with a choreographer after a few weeks off. How are the bodies doing today?”. Cue groans and a pretty unanimous shout out for “hip openers!”. So that informed the work that day. On the last day Stine suggested that I lead the company through a ‘yoga nidra‘ session, which is normally done with people lying on the backs listening to instructions. But how do you approach this if someone has a hearing impairment? And what are the ethics of doing a ‘rotation of consciousness’ around various parts of the body if some members of the group do not have those body parts to place their awareness in? I didn’t have the answers to these questions, so I asked. The person with the hearing impairment suggested that I tell her the structure of the verbal instructions beforehand, so that when she would bw lying down and couldn’t hear me, she would have a structure to follow imaginatively. I should tap the floor near her head to indicate when the end had come. The people who don’t have four limbs in the same way I do, thought it better for the group to not omit the limbs from the rotation of consciousness by sticking to a torso based rotation.
On my final day, Celeste Dandeker OBE, one of the founders of Candoco Dance Company, was in the studio. After a brief chat that word ‘dialogue’ came up again. “This company is all about that”.
Indeed. Just a few days later I dropped into a lecture at my university on ‘Disability Theory’. It was put forward that all of us have a tendency to categorise people through a process of ‘othering’. When we ‘other’ other people or groups we tend to automatically reduce those people or groups to our conceptions of them. And our conceptions are always reductive. I would argue that the opposite of othering might be considered to be a form of yoga. I am really pleased I got to experience this kind of yoga with Candoco. It was transformative and I feel that I have grown as a result.
Candoco dance company’s performance schedule is here.